(Andy Synn reviews the new album by Sweden’s Dark Tranquillity.)
Broadly speaking, Dark Tranquillity’s career has been one characterised by successive sequences of sudden reinvention and steady refinement, with every major breakthrough followed in turn by a corresponding period of careful, if somewhat less impressive, polishing and fine-tuning.
It’s a pretty obvious pattern in hindsight. The early success of The Gallery was followed by The Mind’s I… the melodic, proggy proclivities of Projector were the jumping-off point for Haven… and then Damage Done, probably the biggest metamorphosis in the band’s career, in turn gave us both the oft-underrated Character and the (arguably) somewhat overrated Fiction.
Unfortunately it’s around this time that things get a little tricky, and we enter what has become a bit of a sensitive area for some fans, as there’s an argument – and not an unreasonable one – that the band have been stuck in something of a rut ever since, repeating the same old formula, to ever-diminishing creative (if not commercial) returns.
For although Character was, in my opinion at least, a worthy enough follow-up to Damage Done, Fiction was effectively just a brace of crowd-pleasing singles surrounded by a wealth of generally solid, but not necessarily stunning, material. And while We Are The Void hinted in places (such as the icy, blackened “Arkhangelsk” and the darkly atmospheric “Iridium”) at burgeoning changes to come, neither it, nor the disappointingly average Construct, managed to capitalise on this potential in order to fully reignite the band’s creative fires.
So the question now is, does Atoma signal another long-awaited, and long-overdue, renaissance from the Gothenburg alchemists?
The short answer is… no, not really. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad album, it’s just not the big step I/we hoped it would be.
That being said, it’s definitely a step up from Construct, and the band (now featuring new bassist Anders Iwers, but minus the now-departed Martin Henriksson) generally sound just that little bit more lively and awake than they have for a while.
It helps of course that the backbone of the album is built around a brace of strong (if not always groundbreaking) tracks that have much more energy and vitality than the last time we had this dance, and songs like the moodily metallic “Encircled” (which is easily the band’s strongest opener since “The New Build”) and the rip-roaring “Neutrality” are almost worth the price of admission on their own.
Elsewhere the band kick out the jams with style on numbers like the mercurial, Projector-esque title-track and the brooding “Faithless By Default”, and though there are a few songs – “Forward Momentum”, “The Pitiless”, “Our Proof Of Life” – which feel a little too stock and familiar for comfort (some of the vocal melodies in particular seem to have been almost recycled wholesale), there are also moments – the gloomy intensity of “Force of Hand”, the pulsing hookiness of “Clearing Skies” – which hint at greater things, even if the album as a whole still seems to lack that certain spark or x-factor needed to really push things to the next level.
Now I’m aware that there’s a certain segment of Dark Tranquillity fandom who are, shall we say, a little rabid in their worship of the band, and I’m sure many of them have already penned their angry rebuttal to what I’ve written here, and will be letting me know about their displeasure in fairly short order. But while these sorts of people (and, let’s be honest, there’s some in every band’s fanbase) can be driven into a raging apoplexy at even the slightest implied criticism of their heroes, I’m operating under the assumption here that the majority of our readers are willing to accept and appreciate a more measured take on things that doesn’t just blindly flatter and fawn over a band simply because they’re a big deal.
And make no mistake, Dark Tranquillity are very much still “a big deal”, and deservedly so. It’s just that Atoma isn’t their best work.
But nor is it their worst, and although it doesn’t quite manage to break them out of their comfort zone (you could easily take the best tracks from here and mix them in with the best of Character, Fiction, et al without missing a beat), it’s good to see that the band still have a fire in their belly and can still rock a lean, mean riff or two when they want… even if it looks like we might have to wait a little while longer for their next paradigm shift.
Atoma will be released on November 4 by Century Media.